A video pre-history of the third millennium



Unpublished, 1999

by Tom Morton and Kevin Murray


Melbourne is about as far away from Sarajevo as you can be, without leaving the planet. 15,500 kilometres separate this comfortable modern city from the ravaged shell-shocked landscape of ex-Yugoslavia. Watching it unravel on our television screens, Bosnia seemed a world apart from the stable, secure and harmonious Australian society that had evolved out of the practical Anglo-Saxon spirit. But only a decade ago, these were European cities, whose people were freer to travel and had more contact with Western Europe than most of their neighbours in the Zone of ‘real existing socialism’.

In Western Europe, it’s fashionable now to talk about ‘devolution’ and ‘regionalisation’.  If it happens somewhere a few hundred kilometres away, somewhere you can’t go with a click of the cursor in Windows 98, it’s called Balkanisation.

When the walls came tumbling down, we were supposed to become one world. And in a way we have. The Zone had the ‘velvet revolution’; we’re promised a ‘digital revolution’—liberation through assimilation into one seamless, frictionless, global network. Aren’t our nation states also being dismantled and replaced by private corporations?

But both revolutions cast their own shadows, both create their own stubborn resistances. 1989 cast its darkest and most deadly shadow across Bosnia. Here, on the Pacific Rim, the ‘flying geese’ of Asia, those modernising economies which were the darlings of neo-liberal economists, were supposed to be the first to sail into the light of the new millennium, the digital dawn. But since a year ago, they too are flying into shadows. A collapse in property prices in Thailand, chaebol caught short of cash in Korea, bankers and stockbrokers weeping on their knees on television in Japan: one by one the emerging markets began to fold in on themselves. East Asia was treated to a spectacular demonstration of ‘friction-free capitalism’ in action. One hundred and fifteen billion dollars worth of foreign capital fled from Asia to safer havens in America and Europe. 25 years of slowly but steadily improving living standards in Indonesia were wiped out in the space of a few weeks.

What is to be learned from these shadows?

REWIND: Stolac, near Mostar, Bosnia-Hercegovina, 1998

Once a Croat, Always a Catholic

The room is filled with smoke, not from the fire which gutted this house not that long ago, but from the cigarettes of the dozen or so men huddled inside what used to be the kitchen, all of them gazing at us, silent and intent. We’re doing an interview for Australian television, with Kemal, a local politician. He’s smoking too. The skin is stretched taut across the bones of his face and he seems to see me indistinctly, through a haze of tension and fatigue. Kemal speaks in clipped, abrupt sentences; it’s hard to tell whether he’s more wary of us, the interlopers, or of the silent audience, who seem to be weighing every word he speaks.

These men are Bosnian Muslim refugees, driven from their homes during the war by Croats who were their neighbours. For two years, since the war ended, they’ve been trying to return to their homes. But although the Dayton peace accord guarantees them this right, until now they’ve been too afraid. Stolac, nestled between sheer stony hills that seem to leap up into a hard blue sky, is a fortress of hardline Croat nationalism. Local politics is run by war profiteers who’ve become respectable ‘businessmen’. By day, they go through the motions of democracy to satisfy the legions of Western observers and monitors who’ve descended on their town. But when the monitors are safely tucked up in their hotels at night, real politics begins. Most of the houses belonging to Muslims in Stolac have been burnt down after the peace accord was signed—to discourage former neighbours from returning to their homes.

Once the interview is over, everyone in the room relaxes. One of the men makes fresh coffee for us on a makeshift stove. They begin talking about the latest incident; two houses blown up just last night in a nearby part of the village, the latest of hundreds blown up by the Croats since the war finished to discourage their former neighbours from coming back. The Croats know a big group of Bosniaks— Muslims—are planning to return. The men in this house are only the vanguard.

‘You know, until the war, we didn’t think of them as Croats’ says one of the villagers, ‘they were just Catholics to us’.

A week later, we’re in central Bosnia, talking to Anna, a young Croat woman who’d been driven from her home in Central Bosnia by Muslim soldiers. I ask her what it means to be a Croat in Bosnia.

‘I always thought of myself as a Catholic. But when the radio began to talk about the Bosniaks, as though only Muslims could be citizens of Bosnia, then we began to think of ourselves as Croats. Now I’d say the two are the same; Croat and Catholic, Catholic and Croat.’

The past is a fantasy constantly recreated in the present.

Over and over, the West chants the same catechism, a death fugue for ex-Yugoslavia faithfully, monotonously intoned by journalists, politicians and diplomats alike. This is how it goes: they are killing each other because they have always killed each other, because their fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers killed each other, all the way back to Illyria; because the undead corpse of nationalism has crawled out from under Tito’s overcoat.

But in that burnt-out, smoke-filled room in Stolac, and beneath the budding plum trees in Anna’s garden in Travnik, the ghosts of other pasts, other histories make a momentary appearance. Nations are latecomers in these narratives; identity altogether more mutable, provisory than our comforting, familiar catechism of ancient hatreds would allow us to pretend.

It’s war that has catalysed the metamorphosis from Catholic into Croat, from Muslim into Bosniak, war that has solidified and simplified identities. As the chief Muslim cleric in Sarajevo, Dr. Ceric, says to us when we visit him: ‘Now people are coming to Islam. But you know who brought them to Islam? Mister Karadzic. More than anybody else Mr Karadzic succeeded to bring Muslims back to Islam, more than our fifty years of our missionary work. Why? Because he put all Muslims on a genocide programme’.

Nearly a decade after the fall of the Wall, in the zone of what was ‘real existing socialism’, it appears that nothing is so urgent as to liberate the future from the past. But the real nature of this task is not to exorcise the past, to liquidate history; it is to release the past from the deadly grip of the demagogues and psychopaths, the bullies and toadies who have established a myth-making monopoly over it, the Milosevics and Karadzics and Tudjmans.

Of course, they have not invented the history that they manipulate so successfully to inspire fear and hatred. Slobodan Milosevic did not conjure up the story of the battle of Kosovo field out of thin air when he made the speech there which was an overture to war, the speech in which he portrayed Serbs as the outcasts of European history, the victims of centuries of oppression perpetuated in the present by the Albanian majority in Kosovo.

But for a Milosevic or a Tudjman or a Karadzic, the past is like some vast Hollywood studio lot, full of props and sets and costumes and special effects which can be expertly assembled and coordinated to stage fantasies of infantilisation, of denial, of liquidation, annihilation.

If the question of right relations between future and past cannot be answered in Bosnia, in the late twentieth century it cannot be answered anywhere. The whole tragic narrative of this century culminates here, ten years after ‘the end of history’, in a dingy cafe where the Francis Fukuyama Strings play ‘Is that all there is?’ while gangsters in Italian sunglasses talk on their mobile phones and the TV shows CNN.

PLAY: St Vincent’s Hospital, Melbourne

Remembrance of stones passed

The sound coming from the next room resembles a whip, rhythmically hitting an invisible object. Though it sounds macabre, there is nothing evident in the present scene that would cause suspicion. These are medical professionals, cheerfully demonstrating their new technology, designed to reduce stress on both the patients and the surgical team.

No one in the room acknowledges the sound. The technician is adjusting some knobs, the radiographer is looking at a screen, and the surgeon is talking to me. ‘It’s a wonderful invention this lithotripter. Before it came along, a kidney stone operation would put a worker out for a month. Now they can go home the same day. It’s quite remarkable.’

His face shows a mixture of pride and self-doubt. He is pleased that surgery has been exorcised of its demons, but unsure if there is a place left for himself, the surgeon. Behind his words the lashing continues—a rent in the auditory order that no one seems to acknowledge. It is like the whipping scene that K uncovers in Kafka’s The Trial—some sadistic ritual at the heart of administrative order.

As a modern invention, the lithotripter is a modest miracle. Its purpose is to destroy kidney stones without needing to open up the patient. Ultrasound and X-ray imaging devices convey images of the stone to a video screen, while a spark plug sends shockwaves through a water cushion to the offending calculus. The procedure is monitored by a technician, who sits in front of the screen guiding the shockwaves to their target. In all this the surgeon now seems out of place. Normally the centre of action, the surgeon stands around like a bemused father whose nightly television news has been taken over by his child’s Nintendo game.

Lithotomy has come a long way. In medieval Europe, lithotomists were often flamboyant figures who went from town to town, relieving sufferers of the offending stone. The most notorious of these was Jacques de Beaulieu. In 1690, he donned a monkish habit of his own design, took the name Frêre Jacques, and entered France to ply his trade. His notoriety was partly due to his unreliability. In 1702, Maréchal de Lorges presented Frêre Jacques with 22 patients to test the surgeon’s skill before undergoing the operation himself: all were successful except the 23rd—his own. The death of de Lorges and many others led to Frêre Jacques’ expulsion from France. Despite this failure, Jacques radical technique of lateral incision was taken up in England by the famous surgeon William Cheselden, who was credited with performing the subtle operation in 45 seconds, to much greater success. This technique returned to Paris with the surgeon Morand who in 1730 sold tickets to those wishing to watch it performed at the Charité. Eventually, surgery came under control of the Paris Faculty of Medicine and barbers found alternative business serving the new royal fashion for wigs.

The surgeon I’m with today views the grim history of his trade with a worldly air. The lithotripter has eventually brought medicine together with warfare. ‘Actually, there’s a rumour, somewhat substantiated, that Dornier developed their lithotripter first as a military weapon. The shockwave technology was useful in disabling tank crews, because it could pass through metal shields.’ The whipping sound increases slightly in frequency.

I glance over to the patient. This middle-aged Lebanese man has a worried look on his face. I inquire on his behalf. The surgeon dismisses my concern: ‘Won’t be long now, just a few hundred hits’.  With these words comes a sudden quickening of the beats. None of the staff seem worried, but I feel compelled to ask where this sound comes from. ‘That snapping sound? It’s the electric charge that creates each shockwave. We’ve got it synchronised with the patient’s pulse, in case there are cardiac problems, you know.’

OK. The changes in rhythm are tied directly to the patient’s anxiety. That’s quite a vicious circle, when you think about it. Imagine you’re the patient, hearing others discuss your situation. Your pulse goes a little faster, but with this comes an increase in the frequency of hits, so your pulse goes a little faster… None of this seems to worry the surgeon. But there is something diabolic, uncanny and pitiful about this sound, as though deeply embedded in the scene is a strangled human voice trying to communicate through the equipment, like a prisoner tapping a granite wall.

What should we make of this scene? Our first impulse might be to seize on this as an instance of the way technology represses the human voice. We could look back to the drama of the operating ‘theatre’, where a patient’s life lay in the caring hands of a human being. We might think about a surgeon’s hands and how they carried with them the history of their labours, and preserved a quiet strength that could intuitively navigate the fleshy jungle. We might imagine to ourselves the scene before a major operation, when the patient looks into the eyes of the surgeon with confidence that his body will be in good hands.

But this nostalgia spoils us. What we are fondly recalling is a mythical age of the master. In so doing, we are conveniently screening out all the accidents, fumbles, miscalculations that bedevil the young profession. What is our nostalgia compared to the enormous reduction in pain and convalescence made possible by non-invasive techniques?

Yet it is difficult to rid ourselves of this nostalgia completely. Where are we without it? To technocrats, lithotripsy is ‘a win-win-win-win situation’. Thanks to the lithotripter, the patient recovers more quickly (win), the economy is not so drained by absent workers (win), the surgeon’s load is eased (win) and the hospital is saved the cost of an overnight bed (win). These wins echo other triumphs of re-engineering, such as hotels which proclaim their environmental friendliness by not washing guests’ towels—win for nature and win for hotel profits.

The problem with this rhetoric is that it is blind to the possibility of loss. While what is lost may be no longer needed—like the print compositor, the urologist or the darkroom technician—there is a use in at least mourning its redundancy. With its disappearance goes a deep familiarity, borne of life’s experience, with the material world—its resistances, powers and limits. Unfortunately, there is not time made in Western society for the acknowledgment of this absence.

There’s a sense in which the lithotripter reflects back to us our anxieties about technology.  As our pulse quickens, so too does the machine: the faster the pace of innovation, the greater our anxiety, the more technology we need to allay our anxiety about the technology we already have, to help us feel at home in the world again. It’s a perfect feedback loop.

Devices such as the lithotripter, email, digital camera, barcodes have a self-evident usefulness that defies dissent. Any attempt to argue against their introduction is easily dismissed as a perverse Luddism. Why argue for the barbarities of the past when the future offers such gentle alternatives?

FAST FORWARD: Calvary, Central Bosnia, 1998

Angel of history

Up a dusty track, winding slowly around the hillside, muttering prayers under their breath as they climb, a throng of thousands makes its way towards the church at Calvary, pausing at each of the Stations of the Cross along the way. The church looks down over a wide valley, bisected by the main road from Sarajevo to Travnik. Last time I came here, in 1994, the valley was deep in snow and a huge UNPROFOR base sprawled in a sea of mud not far from the foot of the hill. Now it’s a warm spring day just before Easter and this procession of Bosnian Croats is on its way to Mass. There are far too many people to fit inside the church, so the service is held outdoors. The three Franciscans who are presiding take it in turns to bellow through a megaphone. One of them becomes so impassioned that he pounds the makeshift altar in front of him. Completely ignorant of what he’s saying, I wonder if he’s a nationalist demagogue, exhorting his congregation to forge a Greater Croatia out of the ruins of Bosnia in God’s name.

I’m proved wrong. After the sermon, as people make their way forwards to receive the Sacraments, our interpreter tells me that the Franciscan has been beseeching his flock not to worship the false gods of nationalism. Nationalism is idolatry, he’s told them. Only those with peace and forgiveness in their hearts can enter the kingdom of God.

In the graveyard next to the church, there’s a statue of an angel with its head blown off.

Not for the first time on this journey, another angel spreads its wings in my thoughts; that famous angel Walter Benjamin carried with him in his briefcase over the mountains from France towards Spain, the angel Benjamin set to watch over our century, the angel in the text of the briefcase he handed to one of his companions just before he took his own life.

There’s a picture by Klee titled Angelus Novus. An angel is depicted in it, one who seems caught in the moment of retreating from something he’s staring at. His eyes are as big as saucers, his mouth is open, his wings unfurled. The angel of history must look like this. He has turned his face towards the past. Where we see a chain of events, he sees a single catastrophe, which incessantly piles ruin upon ruin and sweeps these before his feet. He might well want to stay there, to wake the dead and put that which has been smashed back together. But a storm is blowing out of paradise, which has filled his wings with such force that he can no longer close them. This storm blows him relentlessly into the future, to which he turns his back, while the pile of ruins in front of him rises towards the firmament. That which we call progress is this storm.

The logic of the image seems to say that paradise is in the same direction as the past. The harder this storm wind blows, the wind of progress, or what we now call modernisation, the stronger becomes our desire to fly back into the past, to ‘put that which has been smashed back together’, to create images of harmony and wholeness which never existed.

So, for example, Milosevic and Tudjman and their tame intellectuals conjure up images of a harmonious, ethnically cleansed past in which Serbs (or Croats) lived free of domination by strangers/foreigners/oppressors.

But it’s not only in ex-Yugoslavia that these fantasies of the past haunt the present. In Moscow in 1992, Russians flocked in droves to see a film entitled The Russia Which We Have Lost—a saccharine, romanticised portrait of life under the Tsars.

In many ways, 1989 marked both a remembering and forgetting in Eastern Europe; a remembering, or recreation of a more distant past, and the forgetting, or exorcism of the immediate past under Communism.

Perhaps the most bizarre manifestation of this tendency was the reburial in 1989 of Imre Nagy, the Hungarian Prime Minister murdered by communist hardliners in 1956. In that graveyard the dead were awoken and the pieces of the past rearranged in their ‘proper’ order.

To forge identity in the present, we must always ruthlessly suppress that which has gone immediately before. What’s become of all the electric typewriters, the cartridge tape players, those monochrome computer screens and quaint DOS prompts? When I asked a group of young people in 1993 in a bar in Leipzig about their memories of life in the GDR, many of them said they could hardly remember—’it was like a dream’. The physical traces of Communism were removed as quickly as possible, and the moral traces were expunged only slightly more slowly. Sometimes I imagine that somewhere in a remote valley somewhere in Romania, say, or Albania, there’s a disused quarry into which all the smashed statues of Marx and Lenin from all over Eastern Europe have been dumped. Will the angel one day descend to put these pieces, too, back together?

If Fukuyama is right, surely the angel’s mission is over, and the question we are attempting to answer in this essay is meaningless. We are simply living in an eternal present, one in which nothing means much more or less than anything else.

Or are there other possibilities? When the wind of progress stops blowing out of Heaven, the wind that inflates the angel’s wings ceases—does he simply fall, like Lucifer, into endless night? Or can he rest at last?

FORWARD: Tabet’s Lebanese Bakery, Sydney Road Brunswick

In the Myst

Tempting though it may be to resist the inane logic of the future, to turn back now would be to fall into the uncritical slough of humanism. This path is readymade for those tainted by the nostalgic dream of an organic past. All signs point to a ‘lost world’; once enjoyed before it was either stolen or tampered with.

Down this path tread humanist writers such as Sven Birkerts, proclaiming ‘A finely filamented electronic scrim has slipped between ourselves and the so-called “outside world”’. Such statements imply a lost form of life when there was a seamless relationship between phenomena and noumena, between subjective and objective. Later in his Gutenberg Elegies, Birkerts laments that with the advent of the computer, ‘The site of veneration shifts; in the reader’s subliminal perception some measure of power belonging to the writer is handed over to the machine’. We are invited to imagine ourselves as self-contained and commanding authors—if only it weren’t for this device that has inveigled its way into our lives.

This ‘theft of enjoyment’ has been definitively analysed by Slavoj Zizekin his analysis of the nationalism that afflicted ex-Yugoslavia. According to Zizek’s line, before the break up of Yugoslavia, the resentments towards failed promises of communism had served the purpose of accommodating an impossible fantasy world of nationalism. Once communism was no longer able to cover for the absence of this pure enjoyment, the only possible explanation for its absence is that someone must have stolen it—the Serbs, Croats, Bosnians or Albanians. The best way of regaining the opportunity for utopian world of trust and harmony was therefore to rid the land of those seeking to spoil the world with their sub-human lifestyles.

Birkerts and other humanists follow a parallel path. Technologies, rather than ethnicities, here perpetrate the ‘theft of enjoyment’. The structure of the allegory looks like this: in the place of communism we have books, whose rigid hierarchy of print alienates us from lived experience, from the wholeness, the organic community of the oral tradition.  Communism gave way to the apparent triumph of capitalism. For capitalism ‘read’ multimedia, which promises initially to destroy the hegemony of linear text and release more intuitive and communal expressions—restore the lost paradise of orality.

But of course, it doesn’t work out. Language never quite matches experience, no matter how pliable the medium. Yet rather than forgo the dream of a ‘frictionless’ communication, we look for a more reliable scapegoat. So in the place of the repugnant ethnic minority, we have the sterile computer screen. We can therefore say to ourselves: though we first welcomed computers as writing tools, we find they have indeed distracted us even more from the world and imprisoned us in front of this screen. Thus the path ends in a comfortable cul de sac: our belief in a promised land is sustained by an ‘if only…’ We are both close and safely distant from our goal at the same time. As the Russians say, ‘There is only one thing worse than not getting what you want, and that is getting what you want.’

REWIND: Leipzig, April 1990

No going forward no going back

The office of the chief engineer of the Gisag foundry is unbearably hot and stuffy. I can barely breathe. I am alone with the chief engineer and now that I have switched off the tape recorder he has lowered his voice and recounts to me the political history of the new managing director, from whose—unbearably overheated—office I have just come.

‘I suppose he talked to you about the need to confront the challenges of the market economy, to become more efficient, to attract investment from the West?’

Yes, that’s a fairly accurate summary of what he said.

‘Six months ago he was a loyal member of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) and a faithful servant of the plan’ says the chief engineer, with a grimace. In fact, the grimace, a kind of concentrated fury that has become etched into his features, appears to be the only facial expression he has. There is a deep bitterness in every word he speaks, its cadences older than the recent events, the strange dream which reached its climax in November 1989. I have no doubt that he, too, was a loyal member of the Party, but he seems unwilling to begin mouthing the new vocabulary of the market. He reminds me of the stoker in another of Kafka’s stories, and I begin to wonder if I will ever be able to leave this room, but instead will become drowsy with the heat and fall into a doze, from which I will awake to discover that the Wall still stands firm, that Honecker is still ruler of the worker’s and peasants’ paradise. Heiner Müller:

Gorbachov has introduced the principle of acceleration into socialism, into an apparatus which was geared towards deceleration, retardation. ...The chief problem in the relationship between the two systems, and between the two German states, is that in the East retardation rules, and in the West, acceleration. My concern is to discover how one makes a value of this principle of retardation—which is unthinkable in capitalism.

Eventually, though, the chief engineer’s monologue comes to an end and I am released into the factory hall, where I gasp colder air and talk to the workers above the din of the lathes. I ask them who they voted for in the elections two weeks ago—the first and last free elections in the German Democratic Republic, in which the Christian Democrats have won a decisive victory.

‘We voted for the Christian Democrats, of course. They’re the ones who have the connections to capital and capital is what we need here now. Whenever the Social Democrats were in power in West Germany the economy went downhill.’

They’re friendly, unselfconscious, talkative. It’s as though everyone I’ve spoke to in my three-week train trip around the GDR has a great need to talk, to release a pent-up flood of all the things they couldn’t say, or were too cautious or afraid. Or hadn’t thought. When the Western investors come, they won’t simply sack half the workforce to make the foundry more efficient.

‘Oh well, we’ll just get another job somewhere else’ they reply cheerfully. We swap cigarettes and talk a little about the conditions in the factory, the omnipresent grime and filth, the machinery, some of which dates back to the 20s, the accidents, the noise. They have an image in the minds of the sort of places they’ll be working in before long, the clean, modern, well-run factories they’ve seen on West German television, where the workers are paid in Deutschmark and go to Spain on their holidays.

FORWARD Leipzig 1993

Only more of what destroys us makes us strong

The rigidification of the Stalinist system lead to a stultifying slowness in all areas of life. If you can’t form political parties, there’s no way you’ll be able to get a taxi easily, that much is logical. If you get rid of competition in the economy, you create a corresponding lack in the area of ideology.

Heiner Müller

When I returned to Leipzig in 1993, you could get a taxi, plenty of taxis in Leipzig, join half a dozen registered political parties, watch cable TV and pick up a glossy brochure describing in breathless tones how Saxony would become the Silicon Valley of Central Europe. The Gisag foundry had closed. 18,000 jobs disappeared. Perhaps some of the workers I’d spoken to three years before had found jobs elsewhere. But certainly not all, or even half of them. In 1990, unemployment was a phenomenon outside their experience. What they knew was underemployment—real existing socialism’s answer to the post-modern economy.

I’ve returned in my mind to that moment on the factory floor in the Gisag foundry in 1990 many times, and to the words of Heiner Müller that I read soon afterwards. (In 1990, in 1993 even, the word ‘globalisation’ had hardly begun to be spoken.) From the vantage point of the 1990s, it is possible to see the zone of ‘real existing socialism’, with its chronic rigidification and slowness, its endemic underemployment, as a kind of zone of resistance to the relentless modernisation of capitalism.

‘Creative destruction’, the magical internal mechanism of the market economy, was supposed to bring energy and vitality to this sclerotic zone. Only more of what destroys us will make us strong. But the truth is that the new economy does not need all the shattered pieces of the old. It can do very well without them. Increasingly it is the task of the angel to try and stick these discarded pieces back together into some semblance of a shape.

The truth is that, in any given society, the post-modern economy has no need for between 10 and 20 percent of the population. They are, as Claus Offe says, simply excess to needs. Before long, those percentages will be even higher. If there is one heresy which cannot be spoken by any politician in any Western democracy, it is that globalisation, or the ‘weightless economy’, or the digital revolution, or whatever new phrase has emerged from the disinfected unconscious of this week’s public relations consultant, will not reverse this trend towards redundancy.

On the contrary: while globalisation may swell the ranks of what Le Monde calls the ‘cosmocracy’—the perfectly interchangeable members of the international elite whose job it is to maintain the smooth and silent running of ‘frictionless capitalism’—it banishes more and more of the drones to the eternally twi’lit plains outside the walls of the global city of light.

No-one in their right minds would wish to return to the zone of real existing socialism, to fall asleep in the chief engineer’s office and not wake up, to remain forever in a world of shadows, of boredom and mediocrity. But in one way, it seems, as we gaze ahead into the ‘tunnel at the end of the light’, that this is the choice that presents itself: between unemployment and underemployment, between acceleration and retardation, between the glib triumphalism of the neo-liberals and nostalgia for the zone, for the comfortable stuffiness and fug in the museum of real existing socialism.

FAST FORWARD: Mario’s Palace Hotel, Broken Hill, 1998

Cold hard cash and warm soft capitalism

If we accept that the humanist reaction is just another false utopia, we face a more difficult task—finding enough distance from current orthodoxy so we can make an informed judgment about where to follow the same path. Is there anything left to resist total digital mobilisation? Zizek’s critique leaves us in the position of refugees denied even the memories of a homeland. In the midst of such a dilemma, there is really only one way for us to proceed—forward.

Our recourse is to critique by over-conformity. We need to push the timetable of progress to its natural conclusion, without any excuses. As the Slovenian punk group Laibach argued for ‘more alienation’, we need to go into top gear along the information superhighway—to reach the point at which the digital project begins to unravel.

The digital revolution heralds the advent of a personable capitalism, able to reconcile corporate interests with individual desires. The case for this ‘new economy’ rests on the magical properties of networks. With a logic similar to pyramid selling, the value of networks increases exponentially as they grow in size. The fax machine is a paradigmatic case: it is expensive and useless as a single item, but it both decreases in price and increases in value as more and more people start using them. This logic has led today to the practice of ‘give-away’ software, such as Internet browsers, and ‘open source’ code, such as Apache web server and Unix operating system. According to mantra of Wired magazine, ‘When everybody plays the game, everybody wins’.

The magical element in this picture is what is called ‘friction-free economics’. As Kevin Kelly defines it in the Encyclopedia of the New Economy: ‘Friction-free economics means empowered consumers, accelerated market development, and shorter life spans for products and jobs. No one’s roped into anything anymore’. The message of these words is laxative: loosen up, let go of individual control, and adapt to the flow of the moment. Take nothing for granted. If you manufactured shoes this week, you can be managing sports events the next week. To make this freedom possible, however, it is necessary to have a common medium in which everything moves.

The lubricant, of course, is Microsoft. Software provides the principle medium in which information is exchanged. A spreadsheet looks the same whether it calculates shoe or ticket sales. Like other ‘digerati’, Bill Gates celebrates a ‘frictionless’ world, though for him, the action is focused on consumption, rather than production. Gate invokes Adam Smith’s ideal of market transparency, where buyers and sellers have no secrets from each other. ‘This will carry us into a new world of low-friction, low-overhead capitalism, in which market information will be plentiful and transaction costs low’.

This ‘unleaded’ capitalism heralds an era beyond cold war politics, where there are no walls or curtains to impede the flow of information around the globe. Like ‘non-invasive surgery’ it transcends material boundaries and dissolves the sedimented calculi of brand loyalties.

PLAY: Domed reading room, State Library of Victoria, Swanston Street Melbourne

Freedom of information

Institutions such as the British museum developed collections whose purpose was ‘not only for the inspection and entertainment of the learned and the curious, but for the general use and benefit of the public’. Such collections brought the treasures of the New World to the old, revealing in the process a concentric picture of England at the fulcrum of a massive commonwealth. As well as treasures like the Elgin marbles, these museums also collected human remains, such as skulls from conquered indigenous peoples.

Today, most of these museums accept a responsibility to return culturally sensitive items to their original owners or community. In this sense, museums are partly undoing their charter as custodians of the world’s significant objects.

It is not always so easy, however. Some objects, such as the Narrandjeri sacred artefacts in the Museum of South Australian Museum, no longer have a community to whom they might be returned. Or the community may not be able to accommodate the objects so they that might be preserved for posterity. How then to return the objects, while preserving them for posterity?

One solution is ‘electronic repatriation’. By making collections available digitally (documented on CD-ROM) the information about these objects can be made available to the claimants, while the delicate originals are kept safe in the vaults. The Museum of South Australia have an electronic collection called Punu, which is designed explicitly for the enjoyment of the traditional owners of their indigenous collection.

In committee meetings, we are used to hearing such solutions hailed as ‘win-win’ situations. These happy moments relieve officials of ugly ideological conflicts over limited resources. They are saved by the infinitude of the electronic domain: ‘If you can’t get a homeland, then at least you can get a web site’. Yet the logic goes beyond mere diplomacy. It buys into the core bargain of collective identity.

According to the approach of generative anthropologists such as Rene Girard, the primary moment of culture occurs when social interaction partakes not in scarce material resources, but shared symbolic structures such as language. ‘In the beginning was the word…’ enabled members of a tribe to exchange symbols that can be shared rather than objects that cannot.

Despite this abstraction, Western culture has been burdened by a variety of material limits. Knowledge was kept in books, whose access was restricted by time, space and money. The simple existence of a pot of gold will eventually lead to conflict between competing interests. By contrast, knowledge of goldsmithing can be shared, to a degree, though its distribution may be regulated by libraries with restricted access to guild members.

When placed online today, this information is no longer limited by guilds or university departments: such knowledge is accessible to anyone anywhere. And while previously capital had been protected by distribution limits, such as copyright, today it flourishes in the very absence of those limits. As Linus Torvalds’ Lynux operating system, Apache web server and now Netscape web browser demonstrate, open source programming leads to a stronger product. When a technology is open to anyone to use and modify, the experience pooled is much greater than it would be if left to professionals locked in their secret cubicles. As the Midrash proverb goes, ‘Many candles can be lit from one candle without diminishing it’. Against the papacy of Microsoft, the digital revolutionary cries out, ‘Information wants to be free’.

Today, the goal of information freedom operates like Christian ‘love’ in the late Roman Empire: ‘the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law’ (Galatians 5:22–23). ‘Open source’ is the shibboleth of communal prosperity and the antidote to competition. French philosopher of science, Michel Serres, provides a simple parable: ‘Say Pythagoras’ theorema is something I know, but you don’t. If I teach it to you, you will obtain that knowledge, and yet I will still retain it. This is not a zero sum game’. Code unto others, as you would have them code unto you.

The poetry of Serres’ work is due partly to his evocative materialisation of conceptual processes. Serres identifies the relativistic reasoning in contemporary philosophies as ‘soft’ by comparison with the ‘hard’ structures promoted by the absolutist philosophers of the nineteenth century. Serres finds parallels in the natural world:

Everything that is solid, crystalline, strong, that flaunts its hardness, that seeks to resist—from crustaceans to breastplates, statues and walls, sabre-rattling military types, mechanical assemblages with nuts and bolts—all of that is irrevocably archaic and frozen. Like dinosaurs. Whereas fluids, most living things, communications, relations—none of that is hard. Fragile, vulnerable, fluid, ready to fade away with the first breath or wind. Ready to vanish, to return to nothingness.

Serres’ aesthetic philosophy can be regarded as a ‘source code’ for the more practical reforms affecting working life. It has become a platitude of contemporary business that success depends on having the flexibility to respond quickly to new markets: ‘Nobody knows what tomorrow holds: Constant learning is part of my job.’ From both technocratic and intellectual quarters comes this call to ‘loosen up’ and accept a world gone soft. Should we resist?

I don’t think so, quite yet. Of course, there are prophets of doom whispering in our ears. Martin Heidegger warned against ‘total mobilisation’, when the eternal flame of being is eventually extinguished by the hustle of busy-ness. Slavoj Zizek presages the emergence of monsters such as Pol Pot when the world no longer appears to have an ‘outside’. Yet are these any more than predictable attempts to secure intellectual capital in a post-ideological world? Surely the information revolution is nothing more than an extension of the revolution that made culture possible in the first place.

FORWARD: Jeweller’s workshop, Flinders Lane, Melbourne

Magic pen

The ‘magic pen’ is a typical example of a device that harnesses the potential of digital media to overcome material limits. Designed by the Philips Corporation as part of their Visions of the Future program, it is conceptual rather than practical. As a speculative technology, the ‘magic pen’ helps us define the dream that silently guides the digital revolution.

The broad aim of the ‘magic pen’ is to utilise an interface that is familiar and compatible with the human hand. Of course, the problem with a normal pen is that it remains ‘allographic’: they are performative devices that carry no memory other than the slow wear on lead and wood. The dream of a ‘magic pen’ is to colonise this veteran tool of communication with circuitry that records the physical traces of drawing. This memory can then be downloaded into an ‘ink well’, which is attached to a normal computer. As a bonus, a microphone in the head of the pen can record speech into stored text.

The ‘magic pen’ belongs to a growing family of ‘personal digital assistants’, such as the Apple Newton and PalmPilot. Though resembling ‘smart notepads’, these existing devices inhabit a technological space separate from the conventional world of things. They still rely on ‘screens’ that put us at a distance from the world. By contrast, the ‘magic pen’ simply upgrades a common object so that it is able to retain memory of its actions—it becomes ‘smart’. From the Philips web site:

The simplicity of natural interfaces such as writing and speech, combined with the simple metaphor of a pen, allows the development of a product which is easy to use and highly personal.

Such a fantasy falls within a broader project, championed by MIT, to find transparent designs for new technology. Computers of the future should be ‘wearable’.

The dream of the ‘magic pen’ belies the cumbersome effects of the digital revolution. There is a growing lumber of devices that attach themselves to computers—keyboard, monitor, mouse, zip drive, printer, scanner, modem, camera, microphone, speakers, cables, etc. With each device comes a further extension of the screen into life. Indeed, the gentle reign of digital media—its saving graces and magical forgiveness—comes at a cost. Our vision swims after prolonged exposure to glowing screens, muscles tighten with repetitive clicking, desks disgorge a tangled weed of cables, and we live our days as virtual prisoners in fluorescent air-conditioned environments. This is the ‘terror’ of the digital revolution—the absolute reign of the computer that relentlessly pursues the remaining traces of analogue reality that resist digital ‘capture’.

Out of these dire straits comes the digital version of the Cultural Revolution. Rather impose technology on life from outside, the product designers at Philips and MIT seek to subtly knead it into pre-existing material reality. Head of MIT Media Lab Nicholas Negroponte dreams of ‘computing corduroy, memory muslin, and solar silk’.

In this dream, nothing appears to have changed. You can still hear the Grandfather clock mechanically ticking away in the background—only its movements are synchronised every twelve seconds with a timeserver in Nevada. Your watch looks the same, but its time is regulated by a geo-satellite tracking system that adjusts automatically as you move between time zones. The world is smart, cool and transparent—yet comfortably familiar.

REWIND: Vitez, Bosnia-Herzegovina, 1998

Missing counterweight

The historian is a prophet looking backwards.

Friedrich von Hardenberg (Novalis)

Was it really the race to build more and more nuclear missiles—the nightmare apotheosis of modernist technology—which undermined Soviet power? Or was it the subliminal murmurings of Madonna, the siren song of the soft technologies of postmodernity? Would the Velvet Revolution have spread across Europe if it hadn’t been televised?

Perhaps it is also necessary to liberate the very recent past, the decade since 1989, from another kind of gently nostalgic utopian yearning. It is tempting at times to ask: what if neo-liberalism had not reached its ascendancy at precisely the moment that real existing socialism collapsed? What if the advisers sent in to assist the ‘transition’ to the market in the Soviet Union and Poland had not been smart young men from Harvard and MIT with econometric models under their arms and an unswerving belief in the efficacy of ‘shock therapy’? Could the whole process have been gentler, slower? Could the whole of the zone have become a kind of massive Scandinavia—a social democratic Commonwealth?

Only a few months after my visit to Leipzig in 1990, I interviewed Alec Nove, the Scottish economist who had advised a number of real existing socialist governments and written The Economics of Feasible Socialism. I asked him if he thought there was a possible alternative to shock therapy. Nove, now in his eighties, pondered for a moment and replied: ‘There is an old Russian proverb which says that you cannot cross over a precipice in two bounds’.

Perhaps we need to liberate even this past from the utopian longings of the future, from a desire to contemplate what might have been. Much more important is the recognition that capitalism, too, has now arrived in the tunnel at the end of the light. As Eric Hobsbawm has pointed out recently, there is a supreme irony in the fact that it is not the crisis of capitalism which has ushered in the dawn of socialism, but rather the collapse of Communism which has engendered the crisis of capitalism. One could argue that without the resistance of the zone, the counterweight of Communism, capitalism has accelerated so fast that it has reached warp speed, become unstable, started to undermine the basis of its apparently unchallenged legitimacy.

But what will come next. What is the future, and from which past, or pasts, must it be liberated?

PLAY: Main Street, Stonington, Maine

Get stuff

It’s a scene straight out of the Truman Show. Life imitates art imitating life. Walking down a Main Street in Maine on a mild summer afternoon, smiling at the friendly shopkeepers, I notice a scene so familiar it seems staged for cameras. Across the road, two boys—one fat and the other thin—have set up a lemonade stand. I wait for traffic to pass before going over to investigate this improvised simulation and quench my thirst. A Pepsi truck ambles past. My attention is drawn to its sign, which has a smiling Tiger Woods holding a can, accompanied by the message ‘Get Stuff’. Indeed. Nothing could be more fundamental. Somewhere deep in our programming, we might find this same two word code—‘get stuff’. All else follows— foodstuff, drink-stuff and sex-stuff. I cross the road and get some nostalgia-stuff.

‘Get stuff’ is the maxim of Pepsi’s GeneratioNext advertising campaign. It has two layers of meaning. The first literal reference is to frequent flier points: purchase of drink comes with credit that can be redeemed for ‘Pepsi Stuff’, which includes paraphernalia such as sports clothing. Neat.

The second layer reaches a kind of emotional primitivism. Pepsi’s ‘Get Stuff’ is a kind of fundamentalist consumerism with that violent edge demanded of the unbridled consumer id. Tell the world to ‘get stuffed’. This ‘stuff’ enframes the world as substance for ingestion. Stuff always waits—ready to be grabbed, ripped open, and thrown down some orifice. Slam-dunk.

‘Stuff’ is also the street currency of the digital consumer, to whom the GeneratioNext identity is pitched. The Macintosh compression program ‘Stuff-it’ first identified the link between electronic media and substance. This was extended by the arrival of Zip disks, containing 100mb of data (equivalent to 70 floppy disks).  When 100mb zip disks were introduced, they were promoted as a portable storage medium, particularly for holding Internet downloads. Iomega marketed their zip disks with the phrase ‘For your stuff’. With this medium, the content of the Internet changed from hot data flows to cool data racks. Images, programs and audio can be gathered for use offline browsing. Information gets stuffed.

Now ‘stuff’ circulates around the globe as part of the carnival of the global village. No matter how trivial or profound, whether it is Heidegger or porn shots, it’s all just electronic bytes¾it’s all just stuff.

One of the lists orbiting around the Internet is the ‘Stuff of religion’. Here the world’s faiths are translated into attitudes towards stuff. So Taoism translates as ‘Stuff happens’. Catholicism claims ‘If stuff happens, I deserve it’. And atheism goes ‘There is no stuff’. No doubt Heidegger would add, ‘Stuff stuffs’.

The humour of ‘stuff’ gradually wears thin, revealing a kingdom of need, in which a world is defined by what renders service to the acquisitive instinct. Like some B-grade horror movie, ‘stuff’ eventually infiltrates our most familiar places. Visit any Australian country town and see how the purveyors of stuff have moved in to brighten up its sad old streets. McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Subway, Safeway, 7/11, Pizza Hut and $2 shops hawking goods dumped on the global grey markets, have all replaced the local stores and cafes. Towns all begin to look the same—bright neon colours provide cold comfort of economic progress.

At the same time, the landscape is afflicted by a weed called Patterson’s Curse. While its bright purple flowers give a gay appearance to an otherwise colourless bush, they are at the same time strangling native grasses on which local wildlife feeds. Nature imitates the defeat of life by art.

REWIND: Bridie O’Reilly’s Irish Pub, Sydney Road, Brunswick

The modern all new and improved past

The theatre of the digital revolution introduces a familiar set of roles, but with a new cast of characters. We have the villains, the lost kingdom and the triumphant king.

Casting for villains is easy. The leaders of the ‘opaque’ governments that resist opening up represent the main opponents to global capital. Indonesia’s Suharto, Iraq’s Sadam Hossein and Malaysia’s Mahatir all provide a resistance against which the ‘information liberation army’ can test its strength.

That much is evident. More curious is the emergence of nostalgia that frames the revolution as a restoration of a lost past. In ‘The Eighteenth Brumiare of Louise Bonaparte’, Karl Marx noted the tendency of revolutions to evoke a lost heroic world, whether Roman gladiators for the 1848 revolutionaries, or the Old Testament heroes for Cromwell’s men. The nostalgia of the digital revolution is a little softer in tone.

One of the major cultural movements in the English-speaking world has been the commercial leveraging of the Irish diaspora. The ‘Riverdance phenomenon’ has played to sell-out seasons of high-tech folk dancing in countries like Australia and the US. In three years since 1994, the show has performed before more than 2.5 million people in Ireland, England and the United States. It has made an estimated $78 million in ticket sales and another $71 million through the sale of more than two million copies of its video. It is difficult not to see in this theatre spectacle a benign version of the nationalist fantasies that thrived so well in the Balkans.

In the wake of Riverdance is a sea of Irish pubs. These pubs offer conviviality on tap—anywhere in the world. Unlike the traditional Irish pub, which was a refuge for neighbours to complain about the world, today’s Paddy O’Brien’s or Irish Murphy’s are kit-built constructions of pre-fabricated nostalgia for entrepreneurial businessmen from Moscow to Cape Town.

In Australia, the most successful chain of Irish pub is called Bridie O’Reilly’s. A Perth businessman established this franchise with the vision of a adult McDonald’s. Inside these renovated pubs is a version of what Slavoj Zizek defines as a ‘vanishing mediator’ (an agent that destroys an object of value in the very name of preserving it). While the emerald green and beige décor proudly upholds the Irish values of charm and warmth, the bar operates like a supermarket checkout. State of the art scanners hang from the belts of barpersons, transforming every order into a code in the system. In offering a karaoke sense of community, Bridie O’Reilly’s are masking local culture in the name of a ‘universal local culture’. Instant community—just add Guinness.

Ireland is not the only romantic culture prey to ‘thematisation’. We find a similar marriage of nostalgia and consumerism in Martin Scorcesi’s film Kundun. Scorcesi bridges ancient Tibet and the modern superstore by depicting the Dalai Lama as an avid consumer of Western gadgets. In a pivotal scene, the spiritual leader is being driven in a modern car through Beijing. Against the wishes of his minder, the Tibetan fiddles with his new toy¾an automatic car window. In this act, the Dalai Lama sanctifies the twin virtues of strident individualism and consumerism that form the major point of identification in contemporary American culture.

When we progress into the digital arts, we find this alibi of the past even more deeply embedded. The nostalgia here is for the lost world of the mechanical age. To find this, we need go no further what has been the most popular CD-ROM thus far. The puzzle-game Myst is an interactive narrative developed by the Miller brothers. Its play involves collecting pages from a book distributed through lost worlds, originally designed by the father figure, Atrus. Each world has an elemental theme; so Channelwood, for example, is made of wooden walkways over water, connected by hydraulically powered lifts.

Myst is a largely static, deserted world. Only at the very end do players encounter a human presence in the scenes they explore. The only moving parts are dysfunctional pieces of machinery, which require repair. With a little ingenuity, players restore broken contraptions to working order and in this manner progress through each of the island’s worlds. Accompanied by pullies whirring and levers scraping, players enjoy the theatre of the mechanical age—in the very act of leaving the real one behind.

Bill Gates is an unlikely figurehead for this lost kingdom. His down-beat appearance and homely personality are a long way from the ‘cyber’ aesthetic of the Wired generation. More like a John the Baptist than a saviour, he professes ignorance of the ultimate destination of the information superhighway. His modestly written The Road Ahead demurs: ‘we can no more imagine what the information highway will carry in twenty-five years than a Stone Age man using a crude knife could have envisioned Ghilberti’s Baptistery doors in Florence’.

The glass in Gates’ window to the future is highly reflective. Besides greater profits, what Gates looks for in the future is the restoration of a familiar world. His grand court in Seattle is a mansion optimised for electronic consumption. Visitors can select preferences for wall images and music, which are then programmed into the ‘smart’ mansion to follow the visitor around.

But not everything in his mansion follows the same grain. Gates is committed to an almost alchemical project of transmuting, not lead into gold, but nature into information. In The Road Ahead, he discusses the panelling for his mansion. Exposing a thin veneer of romanticism, he stipulates that it must be of a particular kind of wood¾Douglas fir, to be precise. A new plantation of this wood will be created so ‘as the forest matures, Douglas firs will dominate the site, just as the big trees did before the area was logged for the first time at the turn of the twentieth century.’ Microsoft steps over the corpse of heavy manufacturing and restores the ravaged planet to its healthy, happy old self. And we all get wealthier along the way.

What is more difficult to apprehend is the kind of world it creates—a featureless world of ‘stuff’, where the regime of world’s best practice extends to the local diner or café. Paradoxically, it’s a world of democracy and tools for creative expression, but as Andy Warhol once wrote: ‘Some day everybody will think just what they want to think, and then everybody will probably be thinking alike’.

REWIND: Mario’s Palace Hotel, Broken Hill, New South Wales

Return of the darkroom

The cold war today presents an ideology that is quite at odds with the soft, blurred shapes of the electronic age. Speaking culturally, it seems much further away in time than the medieval age. Despite this, the focus of our attention is on the ‘timeless’ past of prehistoric ecologies, indigenous cultures and village life. Can we counter this trend?

The architect Rem Koolhaas had a scheme to preserve the Berlin Wall as a park. He argued that the wall had been instrumental in shaping the modern city of Berlin and should therefore be retained as a visual key to its design. But the relevance of the wall extends beyond formal concerns. A monument of opposition like the Berlin Wall needs to be preserved as a reminder that politics is marked by incompatible solutions.

Most Western democracies today have settled into arguments about two different ideals of society: wealth for the few or comfort for the mass. While this argument takes centre stage, there is a third power that is massively subscribed but rendered impotent by its own logic. Popular cynicism, represented in Australia by Pauline Hansen’s One Nation Party, identifies politicians themselves as a ruling class, whether from left or right. A more mainstream third party, The Australian Democrats, uses line ‘Keep the bastards honest’, to describe its function in parliament. Blanket cynicism against politicians helps remove reason to think further about difference. Politics becomes ‘stuff’.

The post-ideological age leaves in its wake the slough of material production. Churches, post offices, phone boxes, theatres, asylums, prison bars, manual doors¾the walls that once enclosed the world are being replaced by networks with transparent automatic doors. While enjoying the wonderful efficiencies this brings, we shouldn’t forget the key. Along with a segment of the Berlin Wall, each neighbourhood should preserve its darkroom. In the place of a church, we should have a space of darkness, where we can smell the toxic chemicals that our eyes drink everyday as we look into colourful magazines, and watch the miracle of mechanical reproduction.

PAUSE: Domed reading room, State Library of Victoria, Swanston Street Melbourne

Read Only Memory

Maningrida is on the northern fringe of Australia. It’s where the Macassans used to come and fish for trepang well before any whitefella came ashore. They called it ‘Lemba mani mani’ after the tamarind trees they had planted there. For the Yolngu population, the word means ‘where the dreaming takes place’, which sounds more special that it is. Maningrida is a modern township where a few hundred Yolngu gather for school and services, in between stays in their outstations, where the real dreaming takes place.

I’m walking through Camp D, beyond the ‘whitefella’ compound of teachers and administrators. The scene is stereophonic. In my left ear, I can here the distinctive throb of the didgeridoo, making a song I know nothing of. And in my right ear is the sound of an electric guitar, trying out a string of notes that resembles a song I heard someone playing on the radio earlier that week.

When I reach the address there’s no one outside, so I decide to knock on the door. But there’s a problem— no door. I don’t know what to do. Outside of my familiar social terrain, I’m like a tram off its tracks. Eventually, a young boy notices my situation and asks me who I’m looking for. ‘Peter Danaja.’ ‘Yo, over there.’ I see a group of people clustered around a television set. I walk over. They’re watching a kung-fu film with considerable enjoyment. A space is made for me in the dirt.

Peter picked up the film in one of his recent trips to the city. Though not Maningrida’s most popular title-Lion King is everyone’s favourite-it’s a good way of spending the night, under the stars. After the video has finished and the group has dispersed, I engage Peter in conversation. Peter is big on the Internet, and sees it as a medium that is essentially friendly to the Aboriginal way of knowing, where everything is connected in some way eventually.

Peter is interested in putting together the various stories that make up his dreaming and the world of his people. I suggest to him that the Internet might be a suitable place for it. ‘Why d’you think that?’ ‘Well, because it’s open, you know. You can always add to it. It can be as big as you want, and everyone can add their story to it.’ Peter smiles, but then turns silent. I look at the theatre of stars above our heads, feeling a little ‘Castenada’ about this encounter, temporarily.

‘CD-ROM’s better, mate.’ ‘But why? You can’t change a CD-ROM, once you’ve made it. That’s why it’s called Read Only Memory.’ ‘But that’s it. Our law doesn’t change. And it’s round.’ He makes a broad circle with his hands. ‘We go round, you know. After every few generations, ancestors come back. Everything is connected.’

I am cornered. As a modern, my manner is to celebrate the ‘open’. I expected that my pre-modern acquaintance would certainly back me up on that, in common opposition to the colonial system of knowledge. Yet, it was this very openness that made it a problem for him. In his world, there was no room for innovation. As we talk longer, more layers unfold. Not only is it good to have sacred knowledge on CD-ROM, but Danaja says it has to be protected by a password, so only authorised members of the tribe can look at it. (The irony framing this discussion was that the central issue of Peter’s concern was law, which in his language is called ‘Rom’. But his ‘Rom’ is not my ‘ROM’.)

Encounters like these help remind us that there are no magical solutions for bringing the world together. Ok, he has martial arts videos, gambling and AC/DC CDs, but Peter and his mob do not have the enlightenment attitude to knowledge. Thankfully, there is some form of exchange. A whitefella like me can provide useful advice and equipment, but we can’t provide the rationale.

The government subsidy of towns like Maningrida is contested politically as an artificial prop for an outmoded culture. Regardless of arguments about progress, a culture like Danaja’s is important simply because it can meet Western technology without buying the Platonic dream. We should be grateful for an encounter that teaches us about the limits of our view. From this difference comes the reflection of our own superstitious belief in the magic of democracy.

PLAY: Marrickville, Sydney, 1998

Long live vinyl

The record shop in our main shopping street is called Mint Condition. It is patronised exclusively by Greek and Lebanese boys aged around 17 and sells only American and European dance music, soul, funk, hip-hop, house—on vinyl. Records. No CD’s. Vinyl has been resurrected by a passionate and exclusive cult, but for a very practical reason: you can’t scratch with a CD. The live scratching which is the trademark of the dance DJ—rotating the record backwards and forwards by hand to produce repetitive beats, breaks, squeaks and other effects—just won’t work with a CD player. Digital is dumb. Digital is dead. Long live vinyl!

The wind of progress doesn’t always blow in one direction. Some things seem to have lost their use and then find a new one.

In Europe, the talk is of a ‘Third Way’, the revival of social democracy—which only a few years ago the market triumphalists had pronounced dead. This talk produces a kind of warm nostalgia in Australia, where the acid of neo-liberal economics has eaten away much of what used to be recognisable as social democracy in the ‘Lucky Country’.

But such talk induces a kind of impatience, a certain frustration. Social democracy? Is that all there is? Is that the best the angel can do: plug a few gaps here, paint over a crack there, hope the whole edifice of rubble won’t tumble down again at the slightest tremor?

European—and Australian—social democracy of the past was founded on the premise of full employment in the West; and underemployment in the lands of real existing socialism. If social democracy is to have a future, it must face the challenge of creating the conditions of a decent life in societies where it is axiomatic that some people will never ‘work’—in the sense that we understand work now—and many will only work part-time, sporadically, in the interstices of the market.

As we stand at the threshold of the third millennium, is this the greatest gift we have to offer the future? And what does it mean to the citizens of Bosnia, whose democracy survives only under the armed guard of foreign troops? What does it mean to the generation of Indonesian children whose intellectual development will be impaired by the malnutrition they are suffering now?

We charge the unborn with the task of remembering the dead, and the dead with the responsibility to allow the unborn entry into this world. If there is one past from which we might wish to liberate the next millennium, it is from this century’s fetishism for systems, for final solutions, even solutions for a small planet—the Bill Gates’ kind. Perhaps a world of patched-up, partial, improvised solutions, laborious repairs rather than planned obsolescence is one in which we all might breathe more easily.

The best we can say for this century is that, at its ending, we have begun, however feebly, meekly, to speak again of something like an ethic of care, something which may not entirely fade into the white noise of ‘globabble’. If we had to ask what one single lasting contribution this century has made to our ethical vocabulary, the answer, surely, must be the notion that we have some duty of care towards the non-human world which doesn’t solely consist in our own self-preservation.

Indeed it could be said that we are now sometimes more likely to exercise this duty of care rather more readily towards forests, endangered species, whales than we are towards our own kind. The notion of ecology, of mutual interdependence, has yet to make its way into the impersonal calculus of economics—all the more strange, since for Adam Smith, markets were above all forms of communication.

Human behaviour towards humans in this century, if nothing else, has also liberated us from any remaining delusions we might have that we stand in the centre of things, the crown of creation. Perhaps this too will help us to see that our ethics of care must embrace the human and the non-human equally. But there is a third realm for our ethical consideration now, neither human nor natural—that of our own creations, the machines.

It’s easy to imagine a coming century in which the most powerful social movements will be anti-technological; already there are ‘new Luddites’ in Britain who burn cars and computers in public places (and at the same time publicise their views with a Website!). It is arguable that the entire environmental movement is, in its essence, anti-technological—and this trend is only likely to continue and intensify. But such a tendency, rooted as it is in a kind of Arcadian fantasy of an unsullied pre-modernity—’a world which we have lost’—is potentially no less authoritarian and murderous than the psychopathic fairytales of Milosevic and Tudjman.

Amongst the ethical and social questions of the next century, the question of humankind’s relations with its own creatures, the machines will be one of the most pressing. Until now, at every crisis in the course of modernisation, at every catastrophe these relations have been conceived of by those who are left wandering in the ruins as fundamentally antagonistic. It becomes the task of the angel of history to put back together what has been smashed by the newest generation of machines, if only he could.

We need to conceive of a new relationship between ourselves and our creations. In this century, we have begun to entertain the notion that animals, even trees, have rights; or at least a certain autonomous dignity worthy of respect. We consider that we, as humans, are in some way diminished when yet another species becomes extinct, yet another ancient forest dwindles into nothingness.

Perhaps it is time to accord the same consideration to machines. Perhaps we should begin to consider what it means to us when certain technologies become extinct, when certain processes are lost. Perhaps we would not be so quick to bring more and more new machines into the world at the expense of the old ones, the expendable and obsolescent, the mechanical ancestors. Perhaps we might learn to live on a more equal basis with our creations; not to project on to them, as we do with our human children, our fantasies, our dreams of power, our striving for love and our longing for revenge. It is possible that in so doing, we might also learn to live more equitably and equably with ourselves.

Tape runs out.



Walter Benjamin ‘Über den Begriff der Geschichte’ in Ein Lesebuch Leipzig: Edition Suhrkamp

Sven Birkerts Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1994

Bill Gates The Road Ahead New York: Viking, 1995

Michael Hammer & James Champy Reengineering the Corporation: A Manifesto for Business Revolution St. Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1994

Karl Marx The Eighteenth Brumiare of Louise Bonaparte Harmondsworth: Penguin,  (orig. 1869)

Heiner Müller Zur Lage der Nation, Berlin: Rotbuch, 1990

Nicholas Negroponte Being Digital Cambridge, Mass.: MIT, 1995

Michel Serres Conversations on Science, Culture and Time (with Bruno Latour) Ann Arbor: University of Michegan Press (trans. Roxanne Lapidus), 1995 (orig. 1990)

Luis Join-Lambert and Pierre Klein in conversation with Michel Serres.  Published as the feature ‘Superhighways for All’ in Revue Quart Monde (1), Paris (No 163, March 1997)

Andy Warhol From A to B and Back Again: The Philosophy of Andy Warhol London: Picador, 1975   

Slavoj Zizek `Eastern Europe's Republics of Gilead’ New Left Review (1990) 183: 50-62